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Pasadena voting rights trial begins

The Chron’s Mike Snyder provides an update.

Pasadena City Council

[This] week in a Houston federal courtroom, [the Voting Rights Act] will again be invoked in a challenge to an allegedly discriminatory council system, this time in a suburban city that’s undergone a dramatic demographic transformation.

The lawyers involved in the case, Patino v. Pasadena, will face off in an atmosphere of growing anxiety among activists struggling to preserve minority voting rights. Hampered by the Supreme Court’s 2013 invalidation of a key provision of the voting rights law, these advocates face uncertainty created by the election of Donald Trump as president.

“With Trump, you’re certainly not going to have a Justice Department we can go to if you see some (voting) irregularities,” said longtime Houston political consultant Marc Campos. “They’re certainly not going to be a friend we can count on in future litigation.”

[…]

Locally, even before Trump’s election, there were discouraging developments for voting rights advocates. In 2014, a federal court upheld the Pasadena school district’s system, in which all seven board members are elected district-wide.

And some witnesses at a hearing of the Texas Senate Education Committee last August suggested changing other public school district and community college system boards to at-large systems, generally seen as unfriendly to minority voting interests.

Last June, soon after the Supreme Court decision on the preclearance issue, Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell defied the advice of his advisory committee and pushed through a change to the council district system. Voters narrowly approved the change from a council of eight members, all elected from districts, to six district members and two elected at-large.

In the trial before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, attorneys representing a group of Latino Pasadena residents will try to prove the new system was intentionally discriminatory – a power play by Isbell and his allies to preserve their long-dominant influence.

The city contends it added at-large positions to provide better representation. The new system, city officials say, provides proportionate opportunities for Latinos. Of the city’s roughly 150,000 residents, 63 percent are Latino – up from 29 percent in 1990 – and 42 percent of registered voters are Latino.

See here for the background. Pasadena’s defense is basically the argument that was made in the Evenwel case, which was unanimously rejected by SCOTUS earlier this year. Here, though, that’s not really at issue. The plaintiffs are arguing – and need to prove – that there was intentional discrimination at work, which is a high bar to clear. The city is free to make a dumb justification for their actions, they just have to fend off the claim that they deliberately discriminated. We’ll see how that goes.

Looking towards the future, if this case ever does make it to SCOTUS, assuming no one else leaves the high court it would face a panel that’s about as hostile to voting rights as it was with Scalia on it. Which is not at all reassuring, but at least it wouldn’t be any worse. I will point out that while single-member districts are generally more favorable to minority communities, this is not always the case. I’ve just started working on a draft canvass of the Harris County election returns from Tuesday, but I can tell you that Hillary Clinton carried HISD – which as you know had that district-wide recapture referendum to vote on – by a three-to-one margin. I have not yet looked at other races, and I know for a fact that she got a non-trivial number of Republican votes, but I’d say the default Democratic level in the district was about two to one. There are nine HISD Trustee districts, and they too are two-to-one Democratic. Three districts are represented by Republicans today – Greg Meyers, Mike Lunceford, and Harvin Moore. It is likely, though not guaranteed, that this will continue to be the case after Moore and Lunceford depart. How many Republican trustees do you think there would be if HISD went to an at large system? Sure, this was a much higher turnout environment than usual, but still. The best you could say is that any GOP hopeful for an HISD Trustee position in an at large world would face an uphill battle. Just something to keep in mind.

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